Olivier Vernon – © USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Cowboys 19 – New York Giants 3
Five days before the game, things were looking up for the injured Odell Beckham and the decision to uphold Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was public. Fast forward to the hours prior to kickoff and Beckham decided the confidence in his ankle just wasn’t there, forcing him to sit out while Elliott was granted permission to play until his case was heard in Federal Court (AKA the suspension won’t be served until 2018 in all likelihood). The Giants were without their star and the Cowboys finagled their way into being full strength – and it was eerie how unsurprised Jerry Jones was about the whole thing.
How the game began became the underlying theme of the night. Long, steady possessions by Dallas with proper run/pass balance, ball protection, and overall control. The first two Giants drives resulted in 6 plays, 4 total yards, a sack, a holding penalty, and Eli Manning looking insecure in the pocket. In fact, the Giants initial first down didn’t come until the 2nd quarter. The Giants defense was on the field for 20:43 out of 30:00 minutes in the first half as the Cowboys recorded 47 plays, the most by any NFL team since 2007.
Down 16-0 at halftime, Eli Manning led a 16-play, 9:44-drive that resulted in their only three points of the night. They were 1st-and-goal from the 5-yard line with an opportunity to seize momentum, but blown blocks up front, a 9-yard sack, and completed pass well short of the needed yardage brought rookie Aldrick Rosas onto the field for his first career regular-season kick, a 25 yarder.
Momentum was there for taking again, as the Giants defense stopped Dallas and got the ball back in the hands of Manning. The response? Reaching their own 32-yard line but going no further because of missed blocks and Manning rushing through his reads while neglecting his passing mechanics.
There were only six total points scored in the second half between the two NFC East rivals, as Dallas bled the clock out with consistent ball control and the Giants missing that big-play presence. Manning threw his first interception the play after their biggest gain of the night with just under 8 minutes left in the game, the final nail in the coffin.
The Giants head back to East Rutherford trying to figure how to increase their 2.9 yards-per-carry and 33% 3rd-down conversion rate. The problems with this offense from 2016 are still here, albeit without Beckham in the picture. Speaking of the Giants star receiver, he made plenty of money by not playing because there may not be a non-quarterback in the league that impacts his respective team more than #13.
- 29/38 – 220 yards – 0 TD – 1 INT – 78.8 rating. Manning lacked command and toughness. His shaky feet in the pocket could partially be blamed on the poor play upfront, but he rushed several throws when he didn’t need to. There was enough zip on his passes and his lone deep pass of the night actually had too much on it. When the team needed him to step up, he didn’t answer the bell. A couple of the biggest opportunities resulted in Manning not getting the job done.
- Paul Perkins: 7 att – 16 yds – 2.3 avg. Minimal space to run, yes. But he didn’t create anything on his own, either. He was late to make his decisions and didn’t break tackles. That is a rough combination. Only on the field for 30% of the team’s plays.
- Orleans Darkwa: 3 att – 14 yds – 4.7 avg. Had the nicest run of the night, 12 yards on his first attempt which didn’t happen until the second half of the second quarter. Pass blocked well, showed more life with the ball in his hands than Perkins.
- Shane Vereen: 9 rec – 51 yards – 5.7 avg. Had plenty of garbage time production, but played well earlier in the game as well. His knack for positive plays and reliability on passing downs wasn’t used enough early on. Lacks the star power but he is a chain mover via the pass game. Not one carry for the back that seems to find the hidden yards every time he touches the ball is inexcusable. Vereen may very well be the best RB on this team by a wide margin; he needs more meaningful touches.
- Shane Smith: On the field for 8 offensive plays; got the job done on 3rd down. His presence wasn’t too noticeable, but he was an important player in his limited reps. He moved the pile on a 3rd-and-1 Darkwa conversion.
- Sterling Shepard: 7 rec – 44 yds. The 6.3 yard average per reception isn’t good, but Shepard played tough and did what was asked of him in the offense. This is a very underneath-heavy passing game and Shepard’s strength and toughness fit the slot role well. With Dallas was dropping so may defenders into deep half coverage, Shepard’s short routes in combination with the poor pass blocking up front, Manning looked his way plenty. He dodged a bullet with his self-recovered fumble in the 2nd quarter.
- Roger Lewis: 4 rec – 54 yards. Two of the 3 biggest gains on offense went to Lewis, who saw more snaps because of the Beckham injury. He made a couple nice catches on the move and ran good routes into the vacant windows against the Cowboys Cover-2 defense. If he can continue to show he picking things up mentally, his tools will be used this year.
- Brandon Marshall: 1 rec – 10 yds. The hyped WR signing couldn’t have had a quieter night. His first target came with 1:32 left in the 2nd quarter. He was held without a catch until the garbage-time drive at the end of the game and had he not come up with that 10 yard reception, it would have been the first time since his rookie year in 2007 in which he was held without a catch. He got one downfield opportunity in the second half which resulted in zero separation and a throw that was about 7 yards past his reach. Marshall’s play presented the question, can he create on his own?
- Evan Engram: 4 rec – 44 yds. Engram got the start and played more than twice as many snaps as Rhett Ellison and Jerell Adams combined. The longest Giants play of the night was a 31-yard pitch-and-catch where he showed his elite-level speed down the sideline. His blocking was average at best, including a bad miss on the Giants 1st-and-goal rush from the 5-yard line. If he has the time to get into his intermediate and deep routes, Engram is going to make a lot of plays in this offense.
- Rhett Ellison: 1 rec – 9 yds. One of the surprises of the night, Ellison was only on the field for a third of the Giants offensive plays. His one target resulted in an impressive 9-yard gain where he bowled over defenders and dragged them for an extra few yards. In an offense that struggled to pass the ball anything beyond quick releases, Ellison was vastly under-utilized. His blocking was solid, but he had two significant misses that resulted in TFL or no-gain runs.
- Tackles: Ereck Flowers started off on the right foot, but fell well below the average mark. His second half was an image of what we watched for pretty much all of 2016. Poor use of leverage and too much over-committing his upper body, leaving him unbalanced and without control. Bobby Hart had the worst night of the group, making Demarcus Lawrence look like he was Von Miller off the edge. He spent way too much time on the ground and lacked a consistent push in the run game.
- Interior: Justin Pugh played the best of the bunch, putting together an above-average score, although he did tail off a bit in the second half. His technique and initial punch stood out to me in a positive way. Weston Richburg had an average performance, making a couple of effective second-level blocks but was, once again, pushed back into the pocket a couple times. John Jerry got off to a horrific start, allowing a sack, a pressure, and committing a penalty all within the first 6 plays. He hit a nice stride in the 2nd half, getting movement as a run blocker and neutralizing his man in the pass game. But the damage was done early, ending with a below average grade.
- Ends: As we saw last year, both Jason Pierre Paul and Olivier Vernon played the majority of the defensive snaps (89% and 97%, respectively). Pierre Paul had the highest grade of the group, showing his usual excellent range in pursuit and sturdiness at the point of attack. He brought Dak Prescott down once on a pressure. Vernon recorded the lone New York sack, a play in which he went untouched to the QB. Otherwise, he had a quiet night and struggled to break free from Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith. Kerry Wynn and Romeo Okwara saw time in the diverse, borderline exotic fronts that Steve Spagnulo threw together but neither made any impact.
- Interior: Damon Harrison led all defensive linemen on my grading sheet, playing his usual dominant version of himself. He was stout and active, adapting to the game’s situation all night. His versatility created pressure for Dak Prescott up the middle, deflected a pass, and brought down running backs for a loss. He is a weapon that no offensive line will keep contained. After watching him break down last year, they were sure to keep his snaps limited to just under 65%. Technically Jay Bromley started, but rookie Dalvin Tomlinson out-snapped him 3:1. As I said when they drafted him last spring, Tomlinson would impact the game week 1 in Dallas. He was an integral piece to holding down the 2016 NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliot for the most part. Robert Thomas saw 21 snaps, but struggled to make any impact. He was brought in on favorable pass-rush downs but struggled to disengage from blockers and at times, look way over-matched by the size of Dallas guard Chaz Green. He had a very rough game.
- The brightest spot of the entire defense, the highest grade I have given a Giants linebacker in over a year went to B.J. Goodson. His 18 tackles were the most in the NFL by a long shot on opening weekend. His range and power presence on the move especially stood out. There was a play where he completely lit up All-Pro Guard Zack Martin and finished it off with a tackle for loss. Jonathan Casillas and Devon Kennard played a physical brand and helped contain the Cowboys run game, especially in the first half. Kennard didn’t play even half the snaps, as the Giants were in the nickel for the majority of the game, but his presence was felt on plays where is wasn’t directly involved on the tackle. They played a physical, blue collar brand.
- Landon Collins was all over the field, being used as a linebacker, nickel cornerback, and roaming safety. His performance in coverage was top notch, if only they kept him on tight end Jason Witten all night. Those were the few times #82 had a hard time getting open. Darian Thompson, in what is basically considered his rookie season, struggled to react. On several occasions he was a step or three too late to support the run, especially to the sidelines. His physical impact when making hits just isn’t there, as he looks like an average-sized cornerback trying to play the safety spot. He wasn’t tested much in deep coverage. Andrew Adams was on the field for 8 defensive snaps, but wasn’t really tested.
- Arguably the most entertaining one-on-one battle of the night was Janoris Jenkins vs. Dez Bryant. Jenkins dominated this match-up in 2016 and while I can’t use that word again this time around, he did keep Bryant contained. Minus the one long penalty (21-yard pass interference) that set up the lone touchdown of the night, Jenkins won every match-up down field (3 attempts). He did miss two tackles where there was a VERY questionable effort put forth. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the team’s nickel corner, was on the field for 70% of the plays. His knack for reading routes and forecasting throws gets better and better, but he is not the ideal defender to cover the quicker slot receivers. Cole Beasley made him look silly on a couple of occasions. Eli Apple received the lowest grade of all the Giants defensive backs that played significant snaps. He was beat by Brice Butler early to set up the first Cowboys field goal, beat by Jason Witten on the lone Dallas touchdown, and targeted often on 3rd down where his success rate was not high. His impact on the run game was strong, however.
- K Aldrick Rosas: 1/1 – 25 yards. Easy chip shot, otherwise a quiet night.
- P Brad Wing: 6 Punts – 44.8 yard avg. 41.5 yard net avg, both solid numbers.
- Return: Dwayne Harris had a quiet night.
- LB B.J. Goodson, DT Damon Harrison, OG Justin Pugh
- RT Bobby Hart, LT Ereck Flowers, QB Eli Manning
3 THOUGHTS ON DALLAS
- The linebackers in a 4-3 defense can absolutely change the game. Anyone who watched the combination of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith cannot argue against that statement. Those two were as responsible as any for the Dallas win. They compliment each other perfectly and will be headache for opponents all year.
- Dak Prescott was inaccurate for the majority of the game. He missed a handful of very easy throws, but he looked antsy and overly-excited. Putting too much mustard on the ball and finishing high. This game could have been much worse had he been on top of his game.
- No, I don’t think the Dallas defense is improved up front. The likes of Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper, and Demarcus Lawrence have the Giants offensive line to thank for that talk. They are a sub-par group.
3 CLOSING THOUGHTS
- The most over-reactionary thoughts in the sports world are post-week 1 NFL football. The sky is not falling, this team is not going 0-16. If you have paid attention to the Eli Manning career, the Giants have had several of these games, sometimes multiple in each year. It was as ugly as it got, but that was not a representation of this Giants squad. They will be better Monday night at home.
- Odell Beckham made a lot of money by not playing. His mere presence on the field changes the complexion of the entire offense, and his true value will be felt when he gets back on the field. He makes other players better, plain and simple.
- Hats off to the defense after an exhausting first half. But a solution needs to be found for defending the tight end. Enough of this already. Each year more and more teams are adding the athletic pass catcher to that position; it will become the norm very soon. Jason Witten became the all time leading receiver for the storied organization and his historic production against the Giants was highlighted (150 career catches against the Giants alone). If there is an Achilles’ heel to this strong defense, the tight end is it.